By Jason McLure
LITTLETON, New Hampshire (Reuters) - New England's once mighty fishing industry suffered a blow on Wednesday after a council voted to cut cod fishing quotas by more than 50 percent this year amidst sharply declining North Atlantic stocks of the bottom-feeder.
At a meeting in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, the New England Fishery Management Council voted to slash the legal harvest of cod in the Gulf of Maine by 77 percent to 1,550 metric tons for the fishing season beginning May 1, said Pat Fiorelli, a spokeswoman for the council.
"It's really grim," said Fiorelli. "These stocks are in real decline and questions were raised about whether they'll ever come back."
It also cut the quota for cod caught on Georges Bank, an area stretching east of Cape Cod, by 55 percent to 2,002 metric tons. The new quotas will be in effect until 2016.
The limits highlight the disappearance of a fish species that helped draw settlers to North America from Europe 500 years ago.
This year's quotas are equivalent to about 6 percent of the landings of Georges Bank and Gulf of Maine cod in 1981. Researchers at the University of New Hampshire estimate that cod stocks have declined by about 90 percent in the last 50 years due to overfishing and other changes to marine ecosystems.
In September the Commerce Department issued a disaster declaration for the fishery, a move that set the stage for emergency relief funding from Congress.
A total of $150 million in relief for the New England and two other fishing areas was included in an early version of the Hurricane Sandy relief bill that passed earlier this month, but was removed from the final version of the law.
"There are a lot of scared fishermen figuring out what their future is going to look like and a lot of people scared about what the ecosystem looks like," said Ben Martens, director of the Maine Coast Fishermen's Association, which represents 35 fishermen.
The council considered and rejected a motion to close the fisheries completely in order to give the fish populations a better chance to recover, though that did little to cheer the industry, said Martens. Fishermen who made 100 trips to sea last year will likely make between 15 and 30 this year, he said.
"We've got a lot of guys who have been working very hard to create businesses that are solvent and this cut is going to be really hard on them," Martens said.
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Eric Walsh)